Art and Man
Posted by Jerry on June 28, 2007
The following is a modified post of something I had written a couple years ago. I am actually not too confident of the legitimacy of my opinions in the post. Nevertheless, I bring this up now in response to an article I read this morning criticizing the iconic status of contemporary artist Damien Hirst and his steady production of terrible junk celebrated by modern art critics as “art of the twenty-first century.” Here are some excerpts from that article, including the picture of one of Hirst’s creations–a cow pierced by arrows.
… contemporary art theory does not permit one to assess whether an artist’s work is superficial or deep, because it’s virtually impossible to tell the difference between a banal work of art and one that takes banality as its theme, or between a simple work of art and a simplistic one. A critic could spend hours trying to decide if something is superficially superficial or deeply superficial—and never come up with an answer.
Reviews have been euphoric for Hirst’s new exhibition at London’s White Cube gallery—a big change from the mixed reaction to his blood-splattered cabinets of 2003, or his photorealist paintings of 2005. But now Damien has “redeemed himself,” as one critic put it, and created what “might be the art of the 21st century.”
So how might we make a case against Hirst? One way is to point to the large amount of terrible work that he has produced. All great artists have produced bad works, but surely none have made as many as Hirst. His 1993 We’ve Got Style, for example, is a yellow kitchen sideboard decorated with ceramic crockery in different single colours—a mundane spinoff from the dot painting. At other times, he has unimaginatively evoked the tedium of modern life by placing office tables and swivel chairs in big glass cases. And then there are all the other skulls Hirst has been manufacturing over the last few years, cast in expensive metals and bearing laughably pompous titles like The Fate of Man.
Many of his recent works have been depictions of the saints (in the new show, there’s a cow pierced by arrows like Saint Sebastian). Some great 20th-century artists have tried their hand at biblical subjects, but they usually only turn to religion when they have run out of other ideas.
The Objectivist philosophy correctly understands art as spiritual nourishment for the human consciousness. Just as you would not feed your body foul or rotten food, you should not feed your mind and your consciousness with foul creations of charlatans masquarading as artists. You have the right to insist that art be as nourishing to your mind as the food you eat is to your body.
The works of art created by the greats like Da Vinci, Raphaelo, Giotto, Beethoven, Michaelangelo, all have one common theme running through them: they lead the human mind to glimpses of greatness, to the idealization of the human form–although that greatness was perceived to be an attribute of or come from Divine Beings, the invariable consequence of focusing on such greatness was to create a desire within humans to climb up as close as possible to that sense of the highest height. The notion that humans were frail and feeble and the Divine was the ideal of everything good and desirable was accepted as self-evident in a culture that believed in God, heaven, hell, souls, spirits, and ghosts.
So, how did we regress from that wonderful vision of lofty ideals being represented in art to the rubbish being splattered across our faces today, to the trash being piled up in front of our yards as “Ready-made Art”, and to the jibberish being recited in our schools?
If history can give us any indication, the nature and sophistication of art in a particular civlization offers some insight into the current philosophical trend and the future of that culture. The flourishing European and western civilizations in the early periods of the Enlightenment and Renaissance were accompanied with art indicating idealistic representations–in literature, sculpture, and painting–of the human form, of human life and endeavors, of human achievements; whereas the African and South Asian civilizations in particular have art that grotesquely disfigured the human form and idealizing, for example, the cow or the snake over the human form.
Moreover, we see evidence of robust, thinking minds primarily in cultures that have nourished their spirits with the visions of greatness in their own artistic human images. Perhaps, this must have served as a great boost to the human ego, allowing man to gain tremendous self-confidence.
Primitive man did not understand the universe, did not believe they were capable of grasping its mysteries, and they did not seek much to unravel them. They merely bowed their heads and worshipped the unknown–as is still practiced in many cultures today.
In my opinion, the religious deification of man’s image (like with the Greek gods in human form and the incarnation of God as man in Christianity) possibly served the psycho-spiritual function of elevating man’s pride in being human. In what can truly be considered as man’s greatest act of conceit, he artistically captured all the greatest notions of his god and manifested them in the body of one human being, which meant that the human body was artistically idealized and imagined as being able to withhold the essence of the fully Divine.
I believe that the divinization of the human form possibly contributed to the nourishment of the human consciousness, giving man elevated levels of aspirations to what was possible to him. This increased the level of man’s own assessment of worth, intelligence, and esteem, gradually leading and contributing to the incredible applications of human rational genius in other spheres of the physical sciences and technology.
In contrast, evidence of aesthetically and philosophically malnourished minds are closely associated with scientically and rationally underdeveloped cultures. These cultures have plenty of hissing snakes, meandering cows, and gluttonous elephants to worship, but have very few rational minds who have an artistically concretized vision to look up to.
And therefore, I am afraid of what might happen to the American culture now if they permit the unrestrained assault of all that rubbish being dished out as art by people like Hirst. We may be deliberately permitting the poisoning of our spiritual nourishment and as such being submissive and docile witnesses to the fall of a great civilization.
As a related point, Ayn Rand takes the concepts of spirituality, morality, perfection, idealization, and divinization out of the domain of religion and properly applies it to man in her artistic works as an attribute proper to man “as he can be and ought to be.” In other words, while earlier Romantics and the Greeks captured their ideals of God in their representations of man, Rand went in the opposite direction by elevating the image of man to subsume the ideals of the Divine.